Clinton's defense of Bush surprises fellow Democrats
Former president accepts explanation on State of the Union
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former President Clinton's defense of President Bush's now-retracted line about Iraq seeking uranium from Africa caught fellow Democrats and former aides by surprise -- and several said their former boss was wrong.
The former president's comments -- in which he suggested it was time for his party colleagues to drop the issue -- come at a time when Democrats, particularly those seeking the party's 2004 presidential nomination, are hammering the White House on Iraq.
Clinton, in a phone interview Tuesday evening with CNN's Larry King, said he thought the White House had addressed the controversy surrounding a disputed claim in Bush's State of the Union address.
Bush, citing British intelligence, said Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa -- a development that would suggest Saddam Hussein was acting on nuclear ambitions. Bush made the speech at a time his administration was trying to rally support for military action against Iraq. Administration officials said this month that the uranium information was based on questionable intelligence and should not have been included in the presidential address.
"I thought the White House did the right thing in just saying 'we probably shouldn't have said that,' " Clinton told King.
"You know, everybody makes mistakes when they are president. I mean, you can't make as many calls as you have to make without messing up once in a while. The thing we ought to be focused on is what is the right thing to do now. That's what I think."
Clinton had called King to honor his guest, former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, on Dole's 80th birthday.
Wednesday, several members of the Clinton administration and a leading Senate Democrat took issue with their former boss's take on the controversy.
"In some critical respects, intelligence was overstated, and it's important for the administration to resolve these questions," said Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser.
He said Bush needs to have a news conference to fully explain how the claim about uranium made its way into the nationally televised address, despite CIA concerns about the quality of the intelligence.
Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta agreed. Unless Bush appears before the America people, the "drip, drip, drip is just going to continue," he said.
But former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright didn't sound so sure. "The most important thing is to move forward," she said. "I agree with President Clinton on that."
The three went to the Capitol Wednesday to present a foreign policy paper at the request of Senate Democrats.
Some Senate Democrats indicated they were not about to drop the matter.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, one of the leading Democratic voices in the Senate, said he didn't think Bush has taken responsibility for the mistaken claim. The Massachusetts liberal said his late brother President Kennedy had said he made a mistake with the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba "because of false information."
"But this president hasn't taken the responsibility; he says George Tenet made the mistake," Kennedy said. "There's a big difference in terms of trying to move beyond on the accountability on this issue, and I think that's a very fundamental, important difference."
Kennedy and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, sent a letter to the White House asking the president to further explain the matter.
Clinton also said Tuesday night that at the end of his term, there was "a substantial amount of biological and chemical material unaccounted for " in Iraq.
"So I thought it was prudent for the president to go to the U.N. and for the U.N. to say, 'You got to let these inspectors in, and this time if you don't cooperate the penalty could be regime change, not just continued sanctions.'"
Clinton told King: "People can quarrel with whether we should have more troops in Afghanistan or internationalize Iraq or whatever, but it is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted for stocks of biological and chemical weapons."
Earlier Tuesday, Bush's No. 2 national security aide took partial responsibility for allowing the inclusion of the dubious claim in the State of the Union address. (Full story)
The admission by Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley marked the first time the White House had taken any blame in the matter. An administration official told CNN that Hadley offered his resignation, but Bush didn't accept it.
Hadley's admission prompted other Democrats to criticize the administration anew.
Presidential hopeful Howard Dean, for example, called on Hadley and any other administration officials involved in the flap to step down.
"It is unacceptable for anyone who misled the president on an issue as significant as a rationale for war to continue to retain a post in government," the former Vermont governor said.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Tony Welch suggested the president should be held responsible for the retracted claim.
Said Welch: "Apparently, at the Bush White House, the buck stops everywhere but the president's desk."
--Congressional Producer Steve Turnham contributed to this report.